Can Fabric Softeners Go Bad? And Other Questions You Might Ask

If you do your laundry by yourself, chances are you’ve come across a delightful laundry agent called fabric softener, and if you haven’t, be rest assured that it makes your fabric softer, and not weaker as the name goes.

Fabric softeners actually help your clothes feel and smell fresh, as well as come out without wrinkles and creases, but do they really work? How do they work? And will they go bad if stored for long? Keep reading to find out, but first; can fabric softeners go bad?

Fabric softeners do not go bad or expire. However, they can lose their effectiveness in making clothes fragrant as well as softer and static free after long term storage. The typical window period to use opened bottles of fabric softeners is 1 year, while that for unopened bottles is 2 years.

After long term storage of fabric softeners, it runs the risk of deteriorating, which means that the properties which provided the anti-static, fragrant and smoothening effect may have gradually started to fade away. And you can typically notice that in subsequent clothes you wash with it.

One of the signs a fabric softener may have aged very well is the presence of lumps in it. You can still discard the lumps, shake the bottle very well and continue to use the fabric softener until the very last bit. Just that it may not be as sharp and effective as you would expect.

What are fabric softeners made of and how do they work?

The principle involves a lot of chemistry, but I’m going to simplify it. You see, apart from making our clothes feel softer and fresher, fabric softeners also help prevent static build-up in our clothes: which is what makes them stick to our bodies, as well as attract more dust.

All of these are made possible by a substance known as quat, which is positively charged. Your fabric on the other hand is negatively charged as a result of rubbing with other fabric in the washer. The positively charged core of the quat attaches itself to your negatively charged fabric and then neutralizes static cling.

This makes the tiny fibers of your fabrics to stand up, and as a molecule-thick coating of the quat covers the fibers, it provides a lubricating layer which gives a fluffier and softer feeling material. In other words, fabric softeners lubricate your clothes at a microscopic level.

Your fabrics also smell nice and preserve colors because, you know, fragrance and other preservatives are added as extras.

How do you use fabric softeners?

Well, there’s no straight answer for this because it’s heavily dependent on your type of washer, so let’s take them one after the other.

If you have a front loader; all you have to do is add the recommended amount (might be stated on the bottle) into the fabric softener dispenser tray. Make sure not to put it into the detergent dispenser.

If it’s a top loader; you’ll need to check if it came with a dispenser. If it did (usually on the central column of the drum), all you need to do is drop the recommended amount at the same time you’re pouring the laundry detergent into the drum.

If there’s no dispenser present, add the recommended amount of fabric softener during the rinse cycle inside water pockets. Doing this will prevent contact between the fabric softener and the clothes which will reduce the chances of stains.

You can also choose to purchase a downy ball and use it as an alternative to manual dispensing. Using it is as easy as ABC. Just pour the recommended amount of fabric conditioner into the ball, close the lid and throw it into the fabrics during the rinse cycle.

What type of fabrics and clothes shouldn’t go with fabric softeners?

Not all fabrics call for fabric softeners. Due to its chemical components, fabric softeners can cause irreparable damage to some certain materials.

A typical example is your towel. Don’t use fabric softeners on anything that has to do with towels because it will affect its absorbency.

Keep fabric softeners away from synthetic fibers like polyester and nylon, as well as pajamas, sportswear, and baby clothes.

Also, if the clothing is meant to be fire resistant, do not use fabric softeners on them as it could reduce its effectiveness.

Are fabric softeners good for your clothes?

Well, they aren’t generally bad for your clothes. However, there’s one popular mistake a lot of persons make with fabric softeners, and it involves using them on athletic clothing.

You see, athletic clothes are meant to absorb sweat or moisture from your body, and then push it up to the surface so that it can evaporate quickly. Unfortunately, when you use fabric softeners on them, the coating they posses interferes with the smooth absorption of sweat.

This same principle applies to towels, which is why it isn’t advisable to use them on your towels.

Modern fabric softeners specifically targeting the issues can help, but it may still hold the disadvantages outlined further down the article.

Can you use vinegar as a fabric softener? If yes, how?

Yes, you can improvise by using vinegar, and it’s also a much cheaper and safer alternative depending on the fabric softener you’ve been using.

All you need to do is add ¼ cup of white vinegar into the fabric softener dispenser, or the softener ball, and voila! Not only would it do the work of a conventional fabric softener, it would also keep your machine smelling fresh.

Note, however, that even though it’s a good alternative, the fact remains that it isn’t 100% as effective as the factory produced, conventional fabric softener. Also, even though I said earlier that it would leave your washing machine smelling fresh, I never really said anything about your clothes.

You see, vinegar isn’t scented so, while the fabrics will end up feeling soft and fluffy, they won’t exactly smell fragrant. Despite this, so many people are still on team vinegar because it isn’t as toxic as conventional fabric softeners and does not leave coatings on their clothes and inside the washing machine.

Are fabric softeners safe for humans (in the long run)

Unfortunately, most fabric softeners aren’t safe for humans. For starters, fabric softeners increase the flammability of clothes, which is especially not ideal for baby clothes.

Another compound present in many fabric softeners that make them unsafe to humans are the main substance that make up their composition, quats, which is short for quaternary ammonium. Quats are known to be toxic to the reproductive system, as well as the respiratory system by triggering asthma.

Fabric softeners contain fragrance, and in order to dispense the scent, some softeners may contain a chemical compound known as phatalates which can cause skin irritations like dermatitis.

In order to help maintain the color of your clothes, fabric softeners usually contain two toxic compounds known as methylisothiazolinone and glutaral which have also been associated with causing skin irritations and triggering asthma.

Fabric softeners have waxy chemicals that help eliminate static build-up, as well as keep your clothes soft, but here’s the thing, these chemicals can also find their way into your sweat pores, clog them, and cause acne.

Lastly, fabric softeners contain carcinogenic substances. In other words; they’ve been known to cause cancer, as well as contribute to eczema.

Are fabric softeners safe for the environment.

In the long run, fabric softeners may not entirely be safe for the environment. The earlier quat compound employed was Dimethyldioctadecylammonium chloride and it posed serious long term risk to the environment and aquatic life due to it’s prolonged rate of biodegradation, now a much toned down quat compound called esterquat is used to reduce but not completely eliminate this risk out there. So as any healthy eyes can see, there may be substitutions, but the risk isn’t entirely eliminated.

What are some alternatives to fabric softener?

If you’ve read the cons of fabric softeners and decided not to use them, I have some safer, eco friendly alternatives.

  1. Wool dryer balls

Wool dryer balls are a good, eco friendly alternative which also help your clothes dry much faster, oh, and guess what? They’re also reusable!

All you need to do is toss them into the dryer with your wet clothes and they’ll come out fresh, soft, and static-free.

Wool dryer balls are fragrance free (you can choose to drop some into them if you wish) so they won’t exactly be a problem to those who are allergic to them.

However, if you’re allergic to wool, you might want to consider other options because with frequent usage, the dryer balls will begin to shed, and some could get stuck in your clothes.

  1. Tennis balls

Not just tennis balls, lawn tennis balls. Lawn tennis balls have somewhat of a wooly, or sometimes nylon exterior. Both of these materials help eliminate static build-up, as well as keep your materials softer.

Their method of usage is just like the wool dryer balls, and although they may have the same working principles, tennis balls have a slight advantage.

You see, like I said earlier, tennis balls could come with a nylon exterior, which works in a situation where you’re allergic to wool. Also, it’s more durable than the former, in the sense that it takes longer before it starts shedding.

The disadvantage, however, is that if you don’t already have them at home, they’ll be more expensive to purchase than the wool balls. Also, tennis balls are heavier than wool balls, so unless your dryer can take heavy duty usage, it’s really not an ideal choice.

  1. Baking soda

Baking soda is actually one of the best alternative to the conventional fabric softener, and one of the reason is that not only does it take care of nasty odors, it also doesn’t contain chemicals that are harmful to humans.

If you want to use baking soda, ensure your washing machine is filled with water, after which you pour about half a cup into the water and wait for it to dissolve completely. Once it’s fully dissolved, put your clothes inside and let the machine work.

Baking soda is free from harmful chemicals, very cheap and is quite common to many homes. A very ideal choice if you ask me.


Not only do fabric softeners go bad, they also trigger certain health issues like asthma, and eczema, as well as negatively affect the environment. This shows they have one too many cons that shouldn’t be ignored.

If you need your fabrics softened, I’ll advise you go for the safer, and more environmentally friendly alternatives.